African Cities — Disrupting the Urban Future

UNDP Strategic Innovation
11 min readOct 25, 2019


By Aylin Schulz van Endert, UNDP; Sharleen Moyo and Shamiso Rudzvizo AccLab UNDP Zimbabwe; Joost Beunderman and Chloe Treger, Dark Matter Laboratories

Harare, Zimbabwe

The future of humanity is urban. Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent in the world with an expected 1.2 billion urban residents by 2050. The continent’s urbanisation comes with extraordinary transformative potential, but the structural hurdles are equally huge. Historically, there is compelling evidence to suggest that urbanisation and economic growth are mutually reinforcing. Yet in Africa, urbanisation is happening in a context of slow structural transformation, pervasive urban poverty and inequalities that compromise a hopeful urban future.

Building on last year’s Istanbul Innovation Days, the 2019 Harare Innovation Days on #NextGenCities will focus on the strategic risks and opportunities inherent in Africa’s rapid urbanisation. It will invite senior civil servants responsible for cities and bring them together with cutting-edge practitioners working on urban solutions from digitally-enabled distributed infrastructure provision to nature-based solutions, and from participatory city-making to sustainable food systems.

Harare Innovation Days is twinned with an Asia-Pacific focussed Innovation Days event in March 2020 on #NextGenGov. Following both events, we aim to open up new pathways for targeted support for collaborative experimentation and learning trajectories within governments starting in the Asia-Pacific, Africa and Arab States region. The Innovation Days have emerged as UNDP’s corporate R&D function, which aims to influence the demand and alert governments to trends and risks, accelerate learning about their potential implications and creates space for strategic co-creation of potential systemic pathways of response — thereby enhancing our transformational capacity to continuously refresh our programmatic offering vis-a-vis our partner countries.


The numbers may be familiar but are staggering nonetheless. According to the World Bank, the continent’s urban population is projected to reach 1.2 billion by 2050. Currently, the continent has three megacities: Cairo (10 million), Kinshasa (12 million) and Lagos (21 million). But this is just the start: if Nigeria’s population continues to grow and people move to cities at the current rate, Lagos could become the world’s largest metropolis, home to up to 85 or even 100 million people by 2100 — more people than California or Britain today. And Lagos is not alone — according to some scenarios, Kinshasa may have 83.5 million inhabitants at that point; Niamey, currently home to fewer than a million people, may have 46 million; and Kigali could grow from 1 to 5 million residents already by 2050. And even closer on the horizon, all of the world’s 10 fastest growing cities are going to be in Africa over the next 16 years. In this context, it’s crucial to remember that over 60% of the land projected to become urban by 2030 is yet to be developed.

The accelerated growth, not just of Africa’s megacities but also its medium sized growth hubs and even previously rural areas, poses extraordinary challenges for national governments and municipalities. But behind the evident everyday challenges of Africa’s rapid urbanisation — unemployment and informality; the infrastructure gap; structurally underfunded municipalities; huge waste problems; widespread issues with land registry and corruption — we see a range of more long-term, interdependent strategic risks: whether climate change and the impact of air pollution on the health of urban dwellers; uncertain economic development and rising inequality; the lack of context specific evidence and its impact on planning and governance; the unintended consequences of disruptive technology; food insecurity and the risks of nutrient decline; or the impact of rapid development on the natural ecosystems cities rely on. They all call into question the current pathways to greater prosperity and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in cities.

On the other hand, it also provides a massive opportunity. Frequently celebrated under the banner #AfricaIsNow, we are seeing incredible dynamism, creativity and innovation across the continent, spearheaded by industry, forward-looking governments and creative, tech-savvy entrepreneurs and enabled by new technologies and new platforms enabling cross-sectoral collaborations.


By building on such disruptive and pioneering ways of working from across the continent, the Innovation Days seeks to unlock an urban future that addresses the current challenges and strategic risks of our time — a future that is uniquely African, rooted in the diverse identities of Africa’s peoples and places, and the continent’s ability to combine global innovations with local solutions. Through the Harare Innovation Days and ongoing support, UNDP aims to accelerate this African future by supporting next generation strategic experimentation.

The 2018 Istanbul Innovation Days on NextGenGov already showed how disruptive technologies are shifting the ability of cities to serve their populations, from the blockchain-enabled real-time pollution monitoring system pioneered by Commons Impact, to MetaSUB’s use of advanced microbiome data to enable predictive approaches like early warnings on looming epidemics or emerging signs of microbial antibiotic resistance. Equally, it recognised that new spaces are needed for citizens and communities to access and make sense of such digital opportunities — showcasing institutions like Madrid’s Medialab Prado that enable such engagement and which develop participative tools like Consul, a software now being adapted and adopted across the world including in the rebuilding of Mogadishu.

Recognising African cities are a key entry point to address the interconnected issues of uncertain economic growth, climate breakdown, social disruption and governance shortfalls. Building on the New Urban Agenda and Africa 2063 in Harare, we will explore how a series of cutting edge innovations already being pioneered in Africa could further develop cities’ capacity for sustainable and resilient growth. In an uncertain urban future it is essential we co-build the institutional capacity to explore and lead towards opportunities that are genuinely relevant to Africa without trying to replicate western models and mistakes. To do this, UNDP is reaching out to senior level civil servants across some of Africa’s fast-changing cities — the key risk holders in the decades ahead. The aim of the Harare Innovation Days is to be a springboard to supporting them with hands on policy experiments in urban governance, development and infrastructure provision, with UNDP providing the required infrastructure to help these key decision-makers develop experiments that will help address their strategic risks. By convening them alongside some of Africa’s leading innovators and disruptors in the technology, urban planning and policy space, we aim to build a platform and peer to peer network for accelerated learning and implementation capacity for urban innovation.

Zones of Experiment

We propose four initial focal themes below. Of course they are not all-encompassing, but they are indicative of the complexities and possibilities of urban change in Africa. They span across a series of cross cutting themes prioritising ecological regeneration; using the best of cutting edge technologies (AI, IoT and real-time satellite data) to provide us with new governance capabilities; securing pathways to inclusion across highly diverse populations and new pathways to creating secure livelihoods and meaningful jobs in an often informal and changing economic context (with leapfrogging innovation ranging from peer to peer exchange platforms for creatives to contextually sensitive financial mechanisms for the missing middle). These are indispensable elements for the achievement of the SDGs.

Participatory city-making

The future of urban development in Africa cannot solely rely on state actors or large-scale corporate investment; to be resilient and legitimate, it needs to tap into the creativity, passion and drive of local communities and embedded entrepreneurs to co-create urban spaces and re-imagine how they are used. This is crucial in order to build on the unique identity of cities and the creativity of young people as a source of strength and dynamism — to engender new cultures of participation that cut across ‘online’ and ‘offline’, and in turn to enhance sense of belonging (especially in a case of unprecedented migration from rural areas). For example: the Block by Block project uses Minecraft (a game) to give citizens an opportunity to design and re-create local public spaces; i-CMiiST are using creative methods to explore more sustainable mobility; Go Down Arts Centre Centre in Nairobi is using culture to engage people in thinking of themselves at a community level, leading to locally driven financing of civic assets and RanLab’s deliberative polling experiments across Africa show that offline settings for participation can enable better implementation of difficult policy decisions like the relocation of communities due to flooding.

This is being supported by a range of diagnostic tools, from Arup’s City Resilience Framework to UN-Habitat’s City City Resilience Profiling Programme (CRPP), and newfound collaborative energy. The latter converges around innovation hubs which put African talents and innovation at the forefront of a movement that will shape their urban future. These hubs from — iHub in Nairobi to the Co-creation Hub in Lusaka — serve as data-driven catalysts and tech incubators for young creative talents to experiment with unlikely ideas that address gaps in service delivery in their local communities and beyond. Equally, networks of young civic innovators like i4policy foster a collaborative dialogue amongst policy makers, technologists and local communities, in order to create policy frameworks conducive to bottom-up innovation. Such networked movements show how people are already finding ways for their voices to be heard, shaping fertile ground for creative problem solving as well as the leapfrog innovation the continent needs.

How can we build on such dynamics to re-invent urban governance fit for the 21st century, rather than merely tweaking the structures we have?

Distributed infrastructure

While many African cities struggle after decades of underinvestment, they also have the opportunity to learn from the past mistakes in creating centralised large scale public works. Huge increases in the demand for electricity mean there are now more than 100 million urban Africans who live right under a grid, but lack an electricity connection, with massive impacts on productivity — but various alternatives are being tested to make systems more affordable, faster to deploy and less fragile both physically and organisationally.

In response to this, we are seeing a growing series of infrastructure experiments that utilize decentralized approaches, leading to more resilient urban infrastructures that help to stimulate local economic development. These dynamics can be found across mobility infrastructure — with Mobilized Construction piloting a digitally enabled approach to sensing needs for road repair and creating micro-contracts that can be procured locally, often at a fraction of the cost — and housing — with ibuild creating a digital ecosystem that provides the transparency and accountability for both governments to procure locally and people to incrementally build shelters/housing based on their socio-economic state — as well as sanitation and waste management with start-ups such as Wecyclers which work with low-income households using an incentive-based model to tackle Lagos’ widespread waste problems. This also provides much-needed opportunities for the creation of innovative enterprises, e.g. in renewables, that strengthen local economies by generating income. Enabling many of these is the rise of technological innovations, from smart-contracts to digital cash — ranging from the well known large-scale success stories such as Ecocash to local initiatives such as Grassroots economics, which issue digital complementary currencies to foster local growth.

How can cities embrace such distributed approaches in their policies and strategies to build the infrastructures for the 21st Century at the scale, speed and inclusion necessary?

Food as a lense for circular economies

Cities have a unique opportunity — and need — to spark a transformation towards a circular economy for food, given that 80% of all food will be consumed in cities by 2050. In many African cities, urban agriculture already plays an important role in poverty reduction, food security, flood protection and (as biogas) energy generation. However a combination of population growth, development pressures and cultural change is threatening this provision model. On top of production, the arrival of industrial food processing and distribution (such as supermarkets) has in many cases gone hand in hand with a rise in low-nutrient food types, replacing traditional foods with nutritionally inferior food; extractive economic models and the rise of open food systems that create externalities — leading to reductions in economic, social and environmental sustainability.

In response, several entrepreneurial experiments are combining new technologies with traditional products to recover wealth from waste products — such as Kusini Water which uses Macadamia nut shells in mobile solar powered water treatment — as well as using the mobile revolution to develop more transparent, equitable value chains such as Twiga foods in Nigeria and Fresh in a box in Zimbabwe. Taking this to city-wide systems change scale, Lusaka’s Food Change Lab is starting to work with local stakeholders to create a new urban policy approach to the food system and Antananarivo have set up a Food Policy Council.

How can new technological capabilities harness the potential inherent in such locally-rooted pathways to better food, jobs, and health?

Nature-based solutions

Urban growth is damaging vital ecosystems globally, with land use change a key issue alongside pollution, waste and carbon emissions. African cities are starting to recognise the importance of integrating climate change information into long term planning and design for critical (and green) water related infrastructure which also drive economic development and inclusion. As our built world is made up of complicated, open-loop systems that subsume and deplete the substrate of our complex environment — it is imperative that we create city systems that don’t depend on depletion and accumulation dynamics.

City-wide innovations focused on strategic infrastructure include multiple examples of innovative financing such as the Upper Tana River Water Fund, which uses payments from downstream water users to provide education and support for over 20,000 farmers in methods that increase yields while reducing the maintenance costs for Nairobi’s water infrastructure. Other innovations include disruptive technologies, such as the use of real-time sensors to create Digital Aquifers in Kenya; community based solutions such as EcoLoos which provide a sustainable waterless sanitation solution while creating fertilisers, and Mass Design which uses exclusively local, responsibly sourced materials, with community members trained and employed throughout the construction process.

Given cities’ vulnerability to the effects of climate change, how can we build the strategies, regulations and investment pathways to ensure that nature-based solutions become the norm instead of the exception?

NextGen UNDP: An antifragile organization

These innovations hint at alternative futures, ones where innovation has been nurtured in our policy-making and regulatory capacities and our agile, multi-level governance models are more fit for purpose. In this context of high complexity and accelerated change, our ambition as UNDP is to transform into an antifragile organization, borrowing from Nassim Taleb, that adapts to change and converts strategic risk into strategic opportunity. We understand that the key to antifragility is the ability to fail in small doses and to use external stressors, like the significant strategic risks that cities face, to ‘gain from disorder’ over time and arrive at better outcomes. Our collective ability to deal with such risks and shocks, and to rapidly learn and re-configure our strategies, technology, people and interventions, (in short: our transformational capability) will enable our partner governments and their partners to show how #AfricaIsNow isn’t just true for the continent’s booming creative industries but also its unique urban future.

Watch this space!



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